NEWPORT — After a nearly half-year-long hiatus, an octopus is once again ready to shake hands with visitors at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
The ever-popular Octopus Encounter was unavailable for the first few months this year, following the release of the aquarium’s previous encounter octopus, Cleopatra.
Cleopatra was released into the ocean in November. The giant Pacific octopus had come to the aquarium after being discovered in a crab pot by a fisherman — not an uncommon occurrence, as the cephalopods love crab. During her time at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, she served as an ambassador for her species and garnered fame through being featured by many media outlets, including KGW-TV and Octonation.
Soon after the bittersweet goodbyes to Cleopatra, another young giant Pacific octopus swam up to the aquarium’s octopus specialist, Lance Hayes, while he was diving in the Pacific off of the aquarium’s boat. The small octopus, which was only around 5-8 pounds, was named Ragnarok — fondly called “Rocky” by some aquarium staff.
In the months since, Ragnarok has grown to 12 pounds and has adjusted to his new life in Newport. Since he has shown interest in interacting with people, he has been tasked with filling Cleopatra’s shoes.
“He’s a pretty curious octopus,” said Emily Gogerty-Northrip, an education specialist who takes groups through octopus encounters, “that’s why we chose him to be an encounter octopus.”
Octopuses — also called octopi or octopodes, all are correct plural forms of the name — are intelligent creatures, which means they crave play and stimulation. Gogerty-Northrip estimated that octopuses are about as intelligent as a domestic dog or house cat, which also need stimulation and play to lead healthy lives — exercise for body and mind.
“We have to provide him with different kinds of challenges (than he would face in the wild),” Gogerty-Northrip explained. “So sometimes he gets his food frozen in ice, and he has to figure out how to get in there. Sometimes he gets his food in a jar, and he has to unscrew the top and get in … he’s great at solving puzzles.”
With all this enrichment comes another opportunity: when an octopus shows interest in interacting with the public, the staff supervises for safety and lets them shake hands.
While we can’t know for sure what Ragnarok is thinking, he has the ability to go to a part of his tank where he can’t be seen or reached, but usually chooses to hang out at the front of the tank and sticks around to feel out hands of visitors who come to see him. However, Gogerty-Northrip also advises groups before they go in to see Ragnarok that if he doesn’t seem curious and responsive, then they may not get to hang out with him for as long. That’s because aquarium staff don’t want to push him into visits when he’s not acting social.
“We’re gonna kind of let him run the show,” Gogerty-Northrip explained to an encounter group. “We’ll see what energy he has, what he’s comfortable with. We call it the Octopus Touch Encounter, but really the octopus touches you.”
Other things she covers in the pre-visit talk: information about giant Pacific octopuses, instructions on how and where to touch the octopus and Ragnarok’s back story.
Octopus encounters are available each Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. with eight spots for each encounter. Children ages 8 and up are welcome, though anyone under 16 must be accompanied by a paying adult over 21 years old. Visit aquarium.org to view prices or to purchase tickets in advance.